New Technologies Help Conserve Water

New Technologies Help Conserve Water

June 30, 2014
Food Security  Water 


The rising world population is putting pressure on natural resources, especially water. The UN says more than one in every six people in the world is water stressed – meaning that they do not have direct access to drinking water. In some areas, rivers no longer reach the ocean, lakes are going dry and underground water aquifers are being rapidly depleted. Moreover, climate change is making water and land availability even more challenging with extreme temperatures and environmental conditions like drought.

Given agriculture uses an estimated 70% of available water, improvements in use efficiency is critical.

The good news is plant science offers tools to help farmers do just that. In fact, much of the recent growth in food production has been attributed to improved, disease-resistant varieties of staple crops; increased use of crop protection products; and expansion of irrigated cropland. Future agricultural technologies will help farmers produce even more food more efficiently and sustainably.

Drought-tolerant and water-use efficient crops, improved irrigation systems and even novel crop protection products are promising. For example, drought-tolerant crops could increase yields by 15-20% during severe drought in areas such as the United States, China and East Africa, according to a 2014 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute. The IFPRI report also found no-till farming coupled with irrigation could increase maize yields by 67% in 2050.

Cassava, naturally tolerant to drought and poor soils, is being studied through a Global Cassava Partnership to develop new varieties that are even more tolerant to long periods of drought.

Rice, which consumes far more water than any other cereal crop and uses up to 39 percent of global water withdrawals for irrigation (it takes about 2,500 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of rice), is another target for water-use efficiency. New rice varieties like short-season and hybrids significantly reduce water use. For instance, rice hybrids in China use about 1,750 liters of water per kilogram compared to 3,500 liters in India. Genetic modification might be able to improve water efficiency of rice by another 30 to 40 percent.